Turn off the Lights

Mad Men – The Collaborators Review: Balancing the Drama with Some Laughs

It’s not easy being Don Draper. In the latest episode, "The Collaborators," we learn new information about Dick Whitman’s past and gain some insight into how the young man transformed himself into the Don Draper we now know. With a childhood like Dick’s, it certainly is difficult to emerge as a healthy, fully functioning human being and to maintain successful relationships. “The Collaborators” gives us glimpses into the adulterous affairs of both Don and Pete, explores professional hiccups with Heinz and Jaguar over at SCDP, and exposes Peggy’s growing insecurity as an authority figure. The episode consisted of an excellent mix of personal character development storylines and workplace situations.

While there wasn’t any ad creation going on in the episode (usually the most entertaining aspect of the advertising business as portrayed on the show), the facets that were featured showcased the importance of agency/client dynamics in an intriguing way. Don approaches the two clients in very different ways: when Herb from Jaguar wants the agency to make a plea for more local ads to benefit his dealership, Don goes out of his way to make sure that it doesn’t work; when Raymond from Heinz insists that the company refuse to work with the ketchup division, Don acquiesces (at least for now) to the clients wishes. Don’s loyalty to "baked beans" comes to no surprise, as he has been prone to stick with long-lasting clients in the past. Similar to the Mohawk Air/American Airlines fiasco, Don would rather be in business with the smaller but reliable client than take a risk for a possibly bigger paycheck.  This is, of course, going to go down a more complicated road, as the team at CGC will surely be approaching Heinz "ketchup" with its own creative work.

His decision to antagonize Herb is deeply personal, clouded by his disparaging opinion of the salesman, and he allows his personal feelings to affect his work, which is something we don’t normally see from Don. Still, it was a truly great and entertaining scene, watching Don intentionally crash and burn the presentation and getting one up over the man was awesome. Herb’s proposal may or may not have been good for business (we weren't given a very strong impression either way, but my money is on probably not), but Don’s actions were not motivated by what was best for the client and the agency. He just didn’t want to keep giving Herb whatever he wanted. Herb really is a huge creep, clearly evident in his scene with Joan, which was probably the best scene of the episode purely because of how perfectly Joan handled him.

Christina Hendricks has become so brilliantly deft at spouting not-so-veiled insults in a pleasantly charming tone of voice. Even though what she says to Herb is pretty scathing, and she certainly means what she says, her delivery is almost gentle and composed. Her moment of contemplation in Don’s office was another great little scene because it was so simple; she doesn’t have to say much to Don to let him know about the situation, and she is quietly resilient as she downs her vodka in what feels like an act of defiance. I like that they had her go into Don’s office, which reminds us of their moment in “The Other Woman” in which he attempts to put a stop to an unfortunate mess, and further establishes the bond they have against Herb. Much better than having her go to Roger’s office and vent, seek comfort in him, or...something (we still don’t know where those two stand with each other).

It was disappointing, however, that we didn’t get more of Joan; the lack of Joan is probably my biggest gripe with the episode. After the character was so neglected in the two-hour opener, it was a surprise how underwhelming her presence in this episode was. Within the first three hours of the season, we’ve not even had a full ten minutes with this character. Ken Cosgrove’s had more material for crying out loud; nothing against the ‘Cos’, but come on, he ain’t no Joan. With any luck we’ll get our Joan fix as soon as next week’s episode, because this situation is becoming unbearable. How’s little Kevin doing? What’s up with her relationship with Roger? Need more Joan!

At least we got Peggy to represent the women of the workforce for the episode. Peggy is still adjusting to the managerial position at CGC and finding it a bit challenging. Her story arc is one of the most intriguing of the early season and the series as a whole. Just thinking about where she started, as her secretary reminds us in this episode, it is almost hard to believe that the same shy and eager young secretary of season one has become a successful copywriter for CGC. Much like last week’s storyline, Peggy is completely separate from anything going on at SCDP, apart from her ritual phone call to Stan, but that seems to be changing as well because CGC’s possible involvement with Heinz ketchup will most likely pit the two agencies against each other, and she will possibly overlap with the team at SCDP. While a scenario like this was expected, it is a good way to tie her in to the broader world of the series and not have her in her own little isolated corner over at CGC. While I didn’t mind her separate storyline in the premiere, it would be nice for her to interact with her old buddies from SCDP, and a head to head match-up between Don and Peggy is certainly something to look forward to. This integration, or melding of the narratives doesn’t seem forced or contrived either; it is a very natural progression towards what would likely come up for her in the future.

Much of her story in this episode, though, was about her position in CGC, her feeling uneasy at times about being a boss, or figuring out how to be tough without being discouraging. In Peggy’s quest to become Don Draper, she is authoritative and assertive with her staff; she even has a matching African-American secretary to boot. Unlike Don, she seems to care that her subordinates are afraid of her or don’t particularly care for her. Don doesn’t have the time to care if his employees dislike him, and he certainly didn’t care whether he hurts anyone’s feelings. Granted, he never would have been made fun of or pranked so openly and directly as Peggy has been. Most likely, Don Draper would have never dealt with anything like that; his harshness was just accepted and tolerated. As much as Peggy would like to be like Don, she knows probably will never be just like him because she is a woman, and because of that people react to her in different ways. If she were a man exhibiting the same behavior, her employees would think of her the same way, but would probably not have the balls to openly defy her.

This part of her story was less interesting to me because it just seemed an extension of what we had seen in the premiere, and it didn’t seem to offer any new insight or perspective into her situation; however, this side plot did give us the world’s best/worst motivational speech ever: “I don’t want you to think that just because I have high standards that means I’m not happy with you. Especially, you know, the way you are. The way you are has nothing to do with the fact that the work needs work.” Oh, Peggy, for someone who is exceptionally adept in using words to sell ideas/products, convince people, etc., she definitely cannot deliver a rousing, or even slightly encouraging, speech. Elisabeth Moss is quickly becoming one of the comedic performers to watch on the show (the speech, last week’s very funny set of phone calls to various people, and so on), and with an episode almost completely devoid of Roger, she was a great source of lightness. Also, it was great that although she was irked by the juvenile joke from the copywriters, she seemed much more bothered by the fact that they couldn’t be this funny for actual work purposes.

Another character with Don Draper-esque aspirations is Pete, who, much like season one Don, is living the familial, suburban life while entertaining affairs as he deems fit. The episode opens on the Campbells' home as a dinner party comes to a close. Now, look, I know beauty is in the eye of the beholder and that taste is highly subjective, but I don’t understand exactly why these two women were practically throwing themselves at Pete. Ugh. He is not the most handsome man in the room (any room, for that matter) and it’s not like he has the charm and charisma of Don. Pete is certainly no Don Draper, so the attraction these women seem to feel is quite inexplicable. Is it just domestic boredom that drives their adulterous actions? Or the allure of the city? But surely their husbands work in New York as well, and they must be in the same economic bracket since they live in the same neighborhood. Whatever the reason for their intrigue, Pete sure couldn't care less because he manages to lure a lady into his crappy New York apartment. Vincent Kartheiser has the whole creepy Pete thing down; the scene with Brenda in the apartment was very uncomfortable and squirmy, and it was just like Pete had those lines rehearsed (about the music, temperature, etc.). It was like he has said them so many times that he’s following a routine. It totally gave the impression that this has become a regular thing for Pete.

I was intrigued by the prospect of exploring Pete’s pathetic life, but the path that the story eventually took was a let down. Brenda showing up at the Campbells' door during the night, bloodied and beat up, felt like Lifetime movie of the week material. The writers could have come up with a less clichéd scenario to lead Trudy to her realization. However, the tonal shifts when Peter hisses at Brenda in frustration and when she asks him to take her to the city in a weirdly giddy way were amusing. And while the whole situation seemed too over the top and kind of cringe worthy, it was made better by Trudy coming down on Pete. It was great that they didn’t go the whole “disgraced housewife” “deer stuck in the headlights” route. Trudy Campbell is too intelligent to be unaware of her husband’s misgivings and will not stand to be humiliated by him. If the end point was to have Trudy confront Pete with his careless infidelity, the show could have utilized a more successful method. Ultimately, all the drama with Brenda dragged the episode a bit down for me, we could have done without it. It could have fit right into Megan's soap opera.

Pete fails at what Don seems to be doing so effortlessly. Don has become highly skilled in managing affairs, so confident in his abilities that he (much like Pete) carries on an affair with his close neighbor. We see his experience of moving into a whorehouse in his young adolescence. This is very telling because we learn that Don/Dick spent his years of crucial sexual development in a highly inappropriate setting, giving way to his unsavory record with women. The storyline with Sylvia and Megan might be considered highly reminiscent of early Mad Men seasons, showing him dealing with his affairs as his unsuspecting wife carries on, but there are new themes and topics introduced this time around. The revelation of Megan’s miscarriage is an interesting advancement, especially because of her mixed feelings. The conversation between Megan and Sylvia was compelling and an indicator of the changing times. Megan never said the word, but the implication of her considering an abortion rang clear, a topic (still taboo today) that was highly controversial in the 60s. All this pregnancy talk also signifies an alert for any kind of foreshadowing, especially since Sylvia was so certain that she could never consider an abortion. Is this a hint into the future, in which she will find herself in such a dilemma? That’s certainly something Don hasn’t gone through. The episode closes with Don sitting on the floor outside of his apartment doors, delaying the moment when he has to face his reality and needing some kind of peace or sense of calm before going in to his home.

The episode offers a great combination of tone and mood, deftly mixing the serious drama with more lighthearted moments of comedy and everything in between. Megan talking about her pregnancy, Trudy confronting Pete, versus Peggy delivering a ridiculous speech, Joan shutting down Herb (that one was both profoundly serious and viciously comic at the same time). One of the most enjoyable aspects of the show is that it can be a deeply serious program, while at the same time delivering hilarious lines and situations. “The Collaborators” was an introspective look at Don and Pete with the occasional moments of levity that saved the audience from drowning in the characters’ comparable gloominess. The episode had its share of tiny mishaps, but the pros overwhelmingly outweigh the cons.

Random Thoughts

-- Is Megan turning into Betty? I hope not, but everything that has happened so far this season is so reminiscent of the Draper marriage. Megan is a much different person than Betty ever was when she was married to Don; she has a greater sense of self and independence. I can’t imagine Megan having Betty’s passivity if she ever found out about Don’s infidelity.

-- Really liked the time jump editing in the scene where Don and Sylvia have dinner. Don’s speech was so on point, he knew exactly how she was going to react and what was going to happen.

-- So the Heinz ketchup info is out because of Stan. Will he be found out and punished? Will Peggy feel guilty taking advantage of her friend and offer him a job at CGC? We can hope, right?

-- Since the Heinz baked beans ordeal lasted pretty much the entirety of season five, the battle for ketchup could go on well into the season, which will definitely weave in Peggy’s presence on the show without much fuss. SCDP vs. CGC, who will emerge triumphant? That is if SCDP is willing to let baked beans go, of course.

-- I know Don said that he would want what Megan wants, but I don’t believe either of them wants children, especially not now. I get the feeling Don is over having kids, since he hardly sees the ones that he already has, but is saying what he thinks is the right thing.

-- Bob Benson is still very, very irritating. I know he is not supposed to be a very likable character, but every time he is onscreen I just want him to get off, or have Cosgrove yell at him some more.



Meet the Author

Follow Us